Christmas will come early for Hallmark fans in Canada this year, thanks to two brand new “fan experiences” spearheaded by one of the network’s longtime stars, Benjamin Ayres. Building on the success of Romance University, the merchandise line and fan community he launched in late 2022 to raise money for various causes, Ayres has rounded up a bevy of stars to take part in the “immersive” events, which he told Heavy are meant to be unique “fan experiences.”
“I want to create an experience for the fans that they haven’t had before,” Ayres told Heavy, adding that Hallmark executives are supporting both events, helping behind the scenes.
On November 30, 2023, Ayres will launch Romance University’s first-ever pop-up shop at a well-known Toronto store, with a kick-off event featuring two of his Hallmark colleagues, Laura Vandervoort and Brittany Bristow.
Two days later near Vancouver, he and a group of other Canadian-based Hallmark actors will give fans the rare experience of visiting one of the enchanting film sets that serves as a backdrop in at least a dozen Hallmark movies. In addition, guests will get to attend a panel hosted by Ayres and featuring Hallmark stars including Paul Campbell, Kimberley Sustad, and Victor Webster.
Here’s what you need to know:
Benjamin Ayres to Launch Romance University’s First Pop-Up Shop With Evening Event
During the month of December 2023, Romance University will sell merchandise, including its new holiday hoodies and locally-made gift products, in the popular Toronto store Gotstyle.
“It’s just really exciting to be able to have the merchandise in an actual store,” Ayres said, adding that “everybody knows” Gotstyle in Toronto.
To kick off the month-long pop-up store, Ayres will host a party for fans on November 30 from 5 to 9 p.m. with food, drinks, and live music from Roddy Colmer, frequent parody contributor to “The Howard Stern Show,” and folk singer Jessie Alexandra. Bristow and Vandervoort, who stars with Ayres in “Miracle in Bethlehem, PA” on December 21, will be on-hand to meet fans, too.
Rather than charge a specific ticket price, Ayres said entrance to the party will be by donation. The money collected through donations and proceeds from merchandise sales that night will support two local women’s shelters that were the first beneficiaries of Romance University’s fundraising efforts — Street Haven, a 50-bed emergency shelter, and Anduhyaun, the oldest Indigenous Women’s Shelter in Canada.
Fans interested in attending must RSVP by November 20 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think we’ve all recognized the power of us together,” Ayres said, reflecting on the way his Hallmark colleagues have come together over the past year to support Romance University and also tap into its fan community for support.
For instance, Romance University raised $5,400 in a raffle to support Ashley Williams and Nikki DeLoach‘s upcoming Dance Party to End ALZ in Nashville on November 12. Two fans who each donated $100 to the raffle, Sara Bonafide and Tracy Dalton, won the chance to sit with Ayres at a main floor table that night.
“We can really do a lot together,” Ayres said of he and his Hallmark friends and fans. “I think that the more we can kind of be together and harness the power of that to help people, the better.”
Benjamin Ayres Called Jonathan Bennett for Advice on Hosting Upcoming Star Panels
Two days after the Romance University pop-up store launch, on December 2, Ayres will be in Langley — about an hour from Vancouver — to help host the first-ever Hallmark fan experience at Martini Town.
The city-themed backlot, made to look like a New York City neighborhood, is where many Hallmark movies have been filmed, including 2022’s “A Magical Christmas Village” and “Time For Him to Come Home for Christmas,” and 2023’s “Notes of Autumn” and “Ms. Christmas Comes to Town.”
“Oftentimes these sites are never open to the public, ever,” Ayres told Heavy, adding that Martini Town owner Gemma Martini reached out to him, impressed with the mission of Romance University, to discuss a collaboration.
For starters, from December 1 through January 1, 2024, fans will be able to visit the outdoor site for the first time while the make-believe city is fully decorated for Christmas.
But during a special holiday event on December 2, Ayres said, guests will be able to “really immerse yourself within the world of one of these movies” with carolers, hot cocoa, Santa, lunch, and swag bags for each guest. Space is limited to 300 fans at the Martini Town Merry & Bright event.
Ayres will lead morning and afternoon panel discussions with Hallmark stars including Campbell, Sustad, Webster, Antonio Cupo, Peter Benson, Julia Benson, Ali Liebert and other actors he’ll announce soon, he said. The actors will share behind-the-scenes stories of how Hallmark movies are made and participate in fun activities like a tree-lighting ceremony and a group photo with attendees.
Slightly nervous about overseeing the two 90-minute panels, Ayres said he reached out to fellow Hallmark star Jonathan Bennett for advice. Bennett has served as emcee for many panels and events at Christmas Con and hosts shows on the Food Network.
“I learned a lot,” Ayres said, adding that “the incredible thing about Jonathan” is how he can be “really calm, doing his thing” backstage and then turn up his energy as he takes the stage or walks on set.
“I guarantee I’m gonna be like Jonathan Bennett, all amped up,” Ayres said of his excitement level about the event.
Tickets to the “Martini Town Merry & Bright” experience on December 2 cost $150. At the time of publication, there was one $300 VIP experience remaining, which includes Ayres directing and filming fans in a mock movie scene. Meanwhile, touring Martini Town on another day in December costs $22 per person.